As our state and nation struggle with the impacts of the Coronavirus, and bars, coffee shops, and restaurants shut down, some business is still going on. The Minnesota Pollution Control Agency (MPCA) is considering a critical water quality permit for the proposed multi-billion-dollar Enbridge Line 3 oil pipeline. The pipeline would run across 355 miles of northern Minnesota, and it would threaten our climate, our clean waters and Ojibwe treaty rights.
The MPCA is taking public comments on Line 3’s “Section 401” water quality permit through April 3. The MPCA had scheduled three public hearings in mid-March in Bemidji, Grand Rapids and White Earth. For understandable public health reasons, those hearings will not be held on their proposed dates. Despite the current crisis, however, the MPCA is sticking with its proposed — pre-virus — permitting schedule as if nothing happened. Regrettably, it cancelled its public hearings with no indication they will be rescheduled.
We are at a critical moment. This is one of the key permits Enbridge needs for Line 3. So far, the MPCA has heard Enbridge’s side of the story, but has yet to hear from impacted and at-risk communities. This new virus shouldn’t be a justification for minimizing public input on this controversial project.
For fairness and transparency, the MPCA should extend the public comment period, reschedule the public hearings when conditions permit and dedicate a significant amount of time to hearing from those with opposing views. If that is not possible, they must deny the permits outright on the basis that the MPCA is unable to gather all the information it needs to make a judicious decision.
Based on one-sided information, MPCA has recommended approving the permit. According to its draft permits, its recommendation is based on information that has come mostly from the company. It seems that public comments are needed so the MPCA can check the box that says “public comments received.”
This is not a letter we want to write. Many of us would rather be focused on the safety of our families and communities. The MPCA’s stance is leaving us with a difficult choice, giving us a narrow window to comment on an issue of critical and long-lasting importance during a crisis.
The fact that the public has the opportunity to submit comments online up to April 3 isn’t comforting. For many tribal members and affected communities in northern Minnesota where access to the internet is unreliable, these public hearings were potentially the only way they were going to be able to participate. Tribal elders and low-income people should not be silenced because the in-person hearings that are normally a part of a transparent government process are now incompatible with the MPCA’s arbitrary timeline. Moreover, we are all now dealing with more immediate issues, too overwhelmed by the health and economic impacts of this crisis to meaningfully engage with an already problematic process.
Delaying the permit review timetable shouldn’t be a problem for Enbridge. Russia and Saudi Arabia are flooding the world market with oil; at the same time, oil demand is decreasing. On Feb. 12, just as COVID-19 was hitting our radar, the New York Times article “Global Financial Giants Swear off Funding an Especially Dirty Fuel” reported that some of the world’s largest financial institutions have stopped funding oil production in Alberta, which requires massive amounts of energy to get it out of the ground and make it usable. As of March 18, Canadian oil was selling at around $9 a barrel, according to a recent article in Canada’s Globe and Mail. “The oil prices are far below what the province’s producers need to be profitable, and a prolonged rout would pose an existential threat across the industry.”
One has to wonder for how long Enbridge and the Canadian oil industry will remain financially viable.
Many of us don’t have a lot of trust that the MPCA will fulfill its mission “to protect and improve the environment and human health.” The MPCA has a history of prioritizing industry over public and tribal interests, such as the MPCA’s recent effort to keep damaging information on the PolyMet mine application out of the public record.
Of deep concern, the MPCA is abdicating its legal authority to protect the health of the water, the land and the people of Minnesota. The Minnesota Department of Commerce has concluded that Enbridge failed to prove Line 3 is needed and has openly challenged the Minnesota Public Utilities Commission’s (PUC’s) decision in court. Meanwhile, the MPCA has taken the stance that in its water quality permit review, it is bound by the PUC’s decision that Line 3 is needed.
A peacetime emergency is no excuse for negating public oversight of our agencies and institutions. Rather, it becomes all the more important. The Walz administration and the MPCA need to use the power they have to protect the environment, the people, and our democratic institutions.